Fruitful Loops

From “The Extended Mind,” by Andy Clark & David Chalmers:

“[I]t may be that the biological brain has in fact evolved and matured in ways which factor in the reliable presence of a manipulable external environment. It certainly seems that evolution has favored on-board capacities which are especially geared to parasitizing the local environment so as to reduce memory load, and even to transform the nature of the computational problems themselves. Our visual systems have evolved to rely on their environment in various ways: they exploit contingent facts about the structure of natural scenes, for example, and they take advantage of the computational shortcuts afforded by bodily motion and locomotion. Perhaps there are other cases where evolution has found it advantageous to exploit the possibility of the environment being in the cognitive loop. If so, then external coupling is part of the truly basic package of cognitive resources that we bring to bear on the world.

Language may be an example. Language appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”


Writing holds a train of thought for us so we can follow it along much greater distances than we do while thinking only in our heads, or in most cases, thinking while speaking. The record of thought on the written page is used in a cognitive loop, cycling back through the mind that created it, keeping it on track, on topic. For a mind prone to scattering in fragments and chasing tangents, writing may be the only way we can think beyond the reactive, short-length chatter that characterizes our natural inner state. There is a much greater possibility of thinking for ourselves with the aid of the page – its attentive obedience doesn’t distract, sway, or obscure, but holds up our developing thought as is, waiting for us to continue, patiently but insistently asking, “and then?

When we bounce around only at the level of our shallow thought trajectories – when we don’t write – our thinking tends to knot itself up in the small lengths of track we give to it. Knots turn into thought-loops, loops tighten the knots. We loop back through the short spans of familiar patterns – maybe it’s an insecurity about our body, or our agitation about the particular way someone ticks us off, or a sense of anxiety about not living up to our potential. These loops play again and again without moving forward.

Writing can help us pull these knots apart, stretch them out on the page, and see their defects and futilities clearly from end to end. Using the larger cognitive loops made possible with a notebook – or a good conversationalist – we can unravel our old autopilot snarls and construct new paths for better thoughts to travel.

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Marian Diamond, Handwriting, and a Literal External Brain

Recently, my brainy fellow & I attended a Science on Screen (1) event about some of the most interesting things in the universe (second in amazingness to the universe itself, of course): BRAINS!

After nearly all the seats in the theater were filled, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of Neural Science and Psychology at NYU, started us off with a short lecture on exercise and the brain. She was so energetic & great at storytelling that I was feeling jealous of the lucky NYU students who get to take classes with such an engaging professor. Her enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that she had me wanting to join an aerobics class after she had everyone in the theater stand up & try something she called “intenSati,” which is basically doing goofy aerobics while yelling affirming things like “I am strong now!” and “I am inspired!” in rhythm with cranked dance beats. Dr Suzuki teaches a course on exercise & the brain where each class starts off with intenSati aerobics. How cool is that?! For someone like me who gets a lot of nervous energy in classrooms, working out my physical jitters right before sitting down to listen to a lecture would really help me relax & focus on learning. Dr Suzuki went on to describe how exercise promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampus (new neurons), better memory, quicker recall, improved focus, stronger motivation, and increased creativity (2).

Dr Suzuki was inspired to research & experiment with exercise by her former professor, Dr Marian Diamond, who was the subject of the documentary film & main attraction of the night, My Love Affair With the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond. Dr Diamond was one of the first scientists to demonstrate the neuroplasticity (changeability) of the brain. Her early experiments were on rats raised in “enriched” environments (lots of space, other rats, various opportunities for exercise, mazes, etc) vs. those raised in small cages with only a few other rats and a single exercise wheel. The rats in enriched environments showed “brain enlargement as a result of brain use” (3). In addition to exercise, Dr Diamond cited diet, challenges, newness, and love as the keys to brain health and growth.

Marian Diamond is well known for the anatomy courses she taught at UC Berkeley, one of which is available in its entirety on youtube. In her lectures, she frequently wrote and drew on a blackboard, saying that this gave the students “a chance to think” compared to showing slides.

“And I write things on the board because it gives you a chance to think. If I just flash a slide up there you have no time to put it in what we call your association cortex. So by the time you write it out, you can remember it.” -Marian Diamond (29:23)

She wanted her students to take notes by hand, because they would be using their “kinesthetic sense” which would help them learn better than if they just read a handout. Explaining her use of the blackboard, she said, “It’s not old fashioned, it’s through years and years of studying education and how you learn–and you learn with kinesthetic sense when you write…” (5:50)

What really stood out about both Wendy and Marian was their passion for understanding the brain. They didn’t take for granted how incredible it is, and their curiosity wasn’t dulled by all they’d learned about it. As Dr. Diamond put it, “I’ve spent more than sixty years studying the brain, and it was pure joy. Don’t you just love the brain?”

The documentary showed Dr. Diamond’s charming habit of kicking off a new class (or stupefying small children) by pulling a real, preserved human brain out of a flowery hatbox and giving everyone a look. Guess what Dr Suzuki was carrying after the film, when she came back onstage to answer questions? A flowery hatbox. Which made sitting in the second row under a bright stage light very worth it, because Wendy has acquired her mentor’s charming habit of pulling a real human brain out of a hatbox and giving everyone a look. A real external brain. Yes! The absolute coolest! Whose brain was it? I have no idea! If we donate our bodies to science maybe someday we too can have our brains carried around in pretty hatboxes for everyone to “ew” and “ah” over. In the meantime, let’s get some exercise & write things down to keep these brains in good shape!

  • notes

1 Science on Screen happens at arthouse theaters around the US, usually once a month, involving a film & an accompanying lecture by a scientist

2 Check out Wendy Suzuki’s book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (also on Scribd). I especially like the premise of this one: she’s almost forty years old, realizes she has no life outside of her work, no friends, and isn’t very happy….so she makes some big changes, starts kicking butt, and writes about it.

3 “Significance of Enrichment,” from Enriching Heredity, by Marian Diamond


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